Monday Jan 26, 2009

Intellectual Privilege

Hobart at Sunrise

Speaking at conferences like (where I delivered a keynote last Friday) and OSCON is great fun. It's challenging to speak to an audience that's so diverse that it includes both the creator of the Linux kernel and students who just discovered it exists. It's humbling to know that the intelligence and achievement in the audience dwarfs anything I've ever done. And I admit that sometimes it's frustrating that there's a requirement for political correctness!

There are political correctness landmines littering this domain. For example, using the terms "open source" and "free software" is often taken as an indication of either one's cluefulness or of one's affiliation to a particular world-view. Personally, I consider the two expressions complementary - open source communities collaborate on a free software commons - but there's rarely a chance to explain that before I speak.

An especially frustrating one is the expression "intellectual property". The term is used widely in the business and legal communities, and it becomes second nature to speak of patents, copyright, trademarks and trade secrets collectively in this way. The problem with doing so is that the expression is factually wrong, and a legion of open source developers (you know, the ones working on free software) take the use of the phrase "intellectual property" as a genetic marker for "clueless PHB-type" at best and "evil oppressor of geeks" at worst.

Why is it wrong? Well, none of those things is really "property". In particular, copyright and patents are temporary privileges granted to creative people to encourage them to make their work openly available to society. The "social contract" behind them is "we'll grant you a temporary monopoly on your work so you can profit from it; in return you'll turn it over to the commons at the end of a reasonable period so our know-how and culture can grow."

Using the term "intellectual property" is definitely a problem. It encourages a mindset that treats these temporary privileges as an absolute right. This leads to two harmful behaviours:

  • First, people get addicted to them as "property". They build business models that forget the privilege is temporary. They then press for longer and longer terms for the privilege without agreeing in return to any benefit for the commons and society.
  • Second, they forget that one day they'll need to turn the material over to the commons. Software patents in particular contain little, if anything, that will be of value to the commons - no code, no algorithms, really just a list of ways to detect infringement.

Working on the legacy of this sociopathy is the subject for another time, but I believe we need to change the way we talk about the subject. Both Lakoff and Lewis agree; the words we use to describe things change the way we perceive them. The term we use probably needs to allow us to speak casually of "IP", so that we don't find every conversation to be a minefield of political correctness. Various suggestions have been made, but each of them seems to me to be so slanted to the opposite agenda that there's little chance of practitioners using them.

However, the term "intellectual privilege" seems to work. It's got the right initial letters, which is a huge win! But it also correctly describes the actual nature of the temporary rights we're considering. After having written most of this, I then searched to see if anyone else thought the same and found that someone is actually working on a book, endorsed by Lawrence Lessig, that has that as the title!

I doubt I will get the chance to explain all this before my next conference keynote. So if I don't, accept my apologies. When I said "IP" just now, I meant "intellectual privilege", and I think it's the right phrase for the job.

Saturday Dec 20, 2008

Open Source Maturity

Red Wine Maturing

There's an interesting comment from 451 Group's Matthew Aslett on the five stages of community open source engagement that's worth reading. I've been using a model something like this for quite a while too. It's interesting to visit companies and see their reach and spread on this model, and to spot the distinctive signs of change that result.

It is resonant with a much older piece of research on the psychology of human belief systems (which works beyond just the religious since capitalism, for example, is also a belief system) by James Fowler in his book Stages of Faith from 1981. The two aren't identical but they suggest there's an underlying maturity model at work.

Aslett asks where Microsoft is placed in the model. Cal Evans responds

Having just returned from 3 days in Redmond discussing PHP on Windows with Microsoft, I agree that Microsoft cannot be pinned to a single stage on this chart. However, realistically, even their forward thinking divisions are no farther along than contribute. I would spread them between denial and contribute with denial being the majority and contribute being the long tail.
I'd agree that every organisation shows this characteristic. Even at Sun, where the software development groups are deeply engaged at stage 5, I still find myself sometimes with staff who are at earlier stages. This is as one would expect from Fowler's work, since every individual will reflect a different stage of their evolution.

They will likely operate at different levels of maturity in different areas of their life as well. This is not a bad thing, and one of the risks of using a "maturity model" is the temptation to treat the later stages as "better". When we do this, instead of valuing and supporting people in the lower-numbered stages, we treat them as "in need of growth".

Maturity Spread and Reach

It's easy to forget that corporations (and indeed large non-profits) are not people, but are rather a vehicle for the collective expression of the vision of many individuals. Things happen not because a faceless corporation somehow chooses to act, but because of the persuasive decisions of actual people, acting within their belief systems. Every good - and bad - decision ultimately goes back to an individual somewhere.

In any collective group, there will be a maturity reach and spread. The "reach" is the furthest stage the most pioneering individual of any influence has been able to take a team. The "spread" will be the range of stages the collective grouping is willing to tolerate existing within itself (there may - will - be isolated earlier and later stages too). Thus in the example Aslett seeks of Microsoft, the reach is to stage 3 on the data in the comments (I would actually suggest recent staff changes may even push that to stage 4) and the spread is back to stage 1 with the weighted centre around stage 1. In Sun, the reach is stage 5 and the spread goes back to stage 1 and is weighted around the stage 3-4 boundary. This is also a fractal effect, exhibited within the groups that comprise each organisation.

That's why I expect Sun, Microsoft, IBM and other corporations to be inconsistent in their approach to open source. I also expect to find that in large groups like Apache and Eclipse there will be a good deal of inconsistency of view. I get very suspicious of attempts to make open source engagement appear uniform across such a wide spread of activities. Both the model Aslett reports on and the work Fowler did in 1981 suggest to me that real engagement will be diverse. And that's actually a good thing.

Monday Dec 08, 2008

Multi-lateral Licensing: CC = Community-Centric

Autumn Acer

Following up on a conversation on Twitter recently, Stephen O'Grady has a useful defence of Redmonk's practice of licensing their copyrights initially under a Creative Commons Attribution/Non-Commercial/Share-Alike license (CC-BY-NC-SA) and then downgrading to CC-BY-SA after sixty days. A number of people commented they thought that the "NC" clause wasn't sufficiently defined and was therefore useless. I posted a comment there and thought I should expand it a little, so...

The problem here is similar to the one people have understanding open source licenses. We have got very used to the role of a license as being to define the parameters for a bilateral relationship. But as Eben Moglen has pointed out, open source licenses are more about defining the context of shared values for a community, and when we see them that way choices become much easier. For example, for me, choosing the license for the Java platform was fairly easy once I realised the primary goal was to open up the GNU/Linux world for Java developers.

CC licenses are not so much about defining exact terms for a bilateral relationship as defining the bounds of a multi-lateral relationship, a sharing community. They can still define bilateral relationships, and well enough that many people find it easy to understand them only in terms of playing that role. But as I tweeted at the time of the original conversation, the CC license is there to tell you when you have to go ask for rights as much as it is there to give you rights.

So the non-commercial clause has massive value, because it tells your community the point at which they need to go ask for rights. Stephen has some fantastic examples of it working in practice that I'll not repeat here (I share the Schmap experience). The NC clause is part of a scheme of multi-lateral licensing. As soon as it's not clear rights are available, go ask - people who use CC licenses are usually delighted to help and almost always prefer to make things work than to get legalistic. But to understand Creative Commons, I suggest reading that "CC" as "community-centric".

Monday Nov 10, 2008

Phase 3 of the Sun Model

Liberty Staircase

I wrote recently about the Sun Model for open source business, my high-level overview of how Sun is working with open source.

To summarise:

  1. remove barriers to software adoption between download and deploy;
  2. encourage a large and cohesive community of software deployers;
  3. deliver, for a fee, the means to create value between deploy and scale, for those who need it.

I've had a number of comments and questions about that third phase. It can include all kinds of value-creation, depending on the product in question. Here are some examples of delivering value for people who have already deployed and are heading towards scale:

  • For Solaris and OpenSolaris, Sun offers subscriptions that include the updates, support and warrantly that allows deployers to get the maximum up-time and performance for the minimum cost. You can get the same results yourself by hiring experts to do the work for you, but the Sun subscriptions save money and time.
  • For MySQL,there is the same sort of deal with the addition of software features needed only by those between deploy and scale, such as MySQL Enterprise Monitor.
  • For Glassfish, again, there is a subscription offering that's perfect for those who have taken the decision to deploy and now want the greatest value with the least fuss.
  • ... and so on, across the portfolio.
Devlievering value can take many forms, and nothing is absolutely forbidden unless is creates a barrier between download and deployment in any way.

...and hardware too

But it would be a mistake to believe Sun's open source strategy is only about software. As has been frequently explained, Sun is a systems company, and the news last week and today underlines that fact by showing two new ways Sun is offering value for those between deploy and scale:

  • Systems for MySQL

    Recently, the first database servers optimised for MySQL were made available. For MySQL users who have moved beyond initial deployment and are now looking for high performance servers with rock solid support at great price points, these are excellent. They are optional, but I'd wager most people will save money and create more value by graduating to them for some applications.

  • Unified Storage

    Today's huge news is the release of the new Sun Storage 7000 Series. These new storage appliances create value by combining open source software with commodity hardware and very clever programming and hardware design to deliver low cost storage appliances with great performance. And the use of open source means the extra access protocols other storage vendors try to charge for are included free.

There's plenty more to say on this subject.  For Sun, open source is not a matter of warm statements of alignment while we carry on with the same old business or keep our core products proprietary. I hope it's becoming clear that the Sun Model is a directional matter.

Sunday Nov 02, 2008

Public Procurement and FOSS


I gave an interview to a journalist last week in response to the research that the European Commission's Open Source Observatory publicised in Malaga last week and the corresponding draft procurement guidelines (thanks to Roberto for the pointers to the Malaga news). I was at the conference but a scheduling conflict prevented me attending IDABC's session, which I regret.

Good News

I very much welcome the guidelines; as I have been saying for well over a year now, the first step to encouraging the use of Free/open source software in the public sphere is to facilitate the adoption-led model in addition to the procurement-driven model, at the very least to the extent of encouraging two-phase procurement. As Rishab pointed out (although not with the same words), there are also the issues of substitutability and the freedom to leave, which I believe it's fundamental for a public administration to consider.

Substitutability guarantees citizens access to government without being forced to trade with a single vendor in order to do so, and the freedom to leave ensures public administrations always have the negotiating power to get the best deal for taxpayers. The guidelines begin to address those issues as well - great news.


The journalist went on to ask me about all the documented procurement violations. It seems that:

Of a sample of 3615 software tenders that were published between January and August this year, 36 percent request Microsoft software, 20 percent ask for Oracle, 12 percent mention IBM applications, 11 percent request SAP and 10 percent are asking for applications made by Adobe.

That's bad enough, and likely illegal in most cases, but then it also turns out:

According to Gosh, software tenders often have either implicit or explicit bias for software brands or even specific applications. Of a thousand government IT organisations, 33 percent said compatibility with previously acquired software is the most important criterion when selecting new applications. Ghosh: "This implicit vendor-lock in means that a tender, meant to last for only five years, leads to a contractual relation lasting ten, fifteen years or more."

Most concerning of all, however, was that despite this all being completely transparent and public, the Commission is doing nothing about it. They regard the problem as being one that the competitors of the favoured companies should address through the courts. That would be fine if the market was largely functional and there were only rare cases of abuse.

But it's not. The improper procurement activity is endemic, and until that's addressed any competitor attempting to act through the courts is likely to find themselves discriminated against even further. It's never good to sue your customers (as the music industry is finding), and in a market where the customers can specify you out of the running with impunity, it's suicidal. Moreover, it can take years for the courts to make a ruling, which means even more lost opportunity for competing companies - assuming they can survive the wait. Until the European Commission takes adequate corrective actions to address this disease, there is no step in the current software market condition that any competitor is likely to take to address it.


Given the scale of the disadvantage already present, why would any player want to make their position worse? In the report of the interview the Commission representative says: "There are sufficient ways for companies and other organisations to protect their rights." He may be right, but they aren't being used by the FOSS community and the reason is that the abuse is too extensive for anyone to want to make the first move.

I'm delighted by the fact the new procurement guidelines exist, but personally I want to see direct action to establish them - it can't be left up to those already disadvantaged. I wonder if anyone has the stomach for it?

Thursday Oct 30, 2008

The Sun Model

Jetting away

As time has gone by, a clear "Sun Model" for open source business has been emerging, at least to my eyes. The summary of it is:

  1. remove barriers to software adoption between download and deploy;
  2. encourage a large and cohesive community of software deployers;
  3. deliver, for a fee, the means to create value between deploy and scale, for those who need it.

Each software team at Sun interprets this model in a slightly different way, but the model holds pretty much everywhere and works regardless of the license for the code. As a business model, it doesn't have much to say about the nature of the development community, but I believe dysfunction in that area is a barrier to adoption so it's always an issue if dysfunction exists.

This model is the natural progression of the concept of monetising at the point of value, and I hope to explore it more over the coming weeks. Feel free to ask questions below about the things needing clarification.

Friday Oct 10, 2008

ODF Going Global

ODF Workshop

If you've been wondering where I have got to (go on, humour me), the answer is I am miles from home in South Africa where I came on Tuesday to participate in the second International ODF Workshop. The South African government were perfect, gracious and attentive hosts, personified in conference co-chair Aslam Raffee, and the attendees were from a wide range of countries.

Content highlights for me were hearing from the Belgian and Brazilian delegations on their progress with adopting ODF as a standard; the infectious enthusiasm of Justice Singh from the high court in Allahabad, India speaking of how and why his court is embracing ODF; practical, sensible questions from so many people; and the announcement from the Venezuelan delegation of their decision to adopt ODF.

The event also encouraged me to think about the words that will shape the global ODF adoption community going forward. My presentation, Seven Words, traced a little of the history of both ODF and the Free and open source software communities that created it. It went on to consider adoption philosophies and practicalities, including a sketch of a migration plan I created by consolidating the various stories I heard from adopters on the first day.

Marino Marcich of the ODF Alliance pointed out that there are now organisations from 62 countries represented in his membership, and I'm left with the strong of impression of a growing global community of practice in governments of every kind, both politically and geographically. From small roots ODF has grown to both a global movement and a strong technology, spreading wherever fair-minded people are willing to take a stand. It's been worth the trip.

Saturday Oct 04, 2008

The Conference That's Worth Attending

Keystone Conference Centre

I speak at loads of conferences, but there's one I have been attending for nearly a decade which I'd like to recommend you consider. Every year I go the content is spot on, and I know I have to find new insights for the audience in my annual keynote because they are all probably more qualified to be speaking than I am.

This conference:

  • Features technical sessions of depth and current relevance to practicing enterprise software developers without hyping a particular fad;
  • Features speakers who are current practitioners, all of whom have high speaker-quality ratings from previous events;
  • Schedules each talk to run two or three times so you can attend everything you want to;
  • Includes a daily open town-hall meeting for questions and problem solving;
  • Is a favoured destination for long-term open source contributors, especially from Apache;
  • Just announced they will be making the most of Apple dropping the iPhone NDA to include an iPhone developer track with real code from real developers;
  • Is a non-partisan, privately-run event with no exhibits, no "sponsors" skewing the agenda and no marketing hype allowed and no marketing droids presenting;
  • Has been running for seventeen years paid for solely by attendee fees, and has the highest repeat attendee rate of any event I know;
  • Is a family affair, run by a family for their extended family of friends and soon-to-be-friends;
  • Is held in a beautiful high mountain retreat where everyone, delegates and speakers, stay all week and meet and eat together. Delegates go home with a rich contact list as a result;
  • Has great food;
  • Is probably the best technical conference in the world.

If you're an enterprise developer with a leaning towards open source and the Java platform (in all its modern incarnations), you should consider attending this event, despite the fact I will be presenting a keynote there for the ninth time. Try Dave Landers for a second opinion.

The event?  Colorado Software Summit, in Keystone, Colorado. I hope I'll see you there.

Tuesday Sep 23, 2008

India: Code for Freedom

I'm delighted to see that Sun India is repeating the Code For Freedom Contest again this year. It's a scheme to directly reward contributions to a selection of open source communities by citizens of India, and was very popular last year. This is in addition to the various participating communities in the Sun Open Source Innovation Awards, which are just now announcing winners.

Friday Sep 19, 2008

Students and Software Freedom

It's Software Freedom Day, and among the many other volunteers around the world, Sun-sponsored students have been working hard on their campuses to prepare for the opportunity to cry Freedom! One of the questions that came up was why students should care about software freedom; here's the answer Lowell Sachs and I came up with.

The growing popularity of free and open source software offers advantages and opportunities to students (as well as developers, users, and budding entrepreneurs) all along the adoption curve. Many will already recognize that the future for society is one of digital liberty, where every user of digital technology is a possible creator, and where all creators in the digital medium are, by definition, users. The open source model fits in perfectly with this emerging reality. In fact, the remarkable success of open source is the result of a feature that is at once a key characteristic of the program and a fundamental pursuit of people everywhere... freedom.

Software Freedom

Many people, if asked to name the main appeal of open source software would reflexively point to the fact that it is free of charge, and thus a good way to save money. However, it is a different kind of ‘free’ that lies at the heart of the open source movement -- the freedom to acquire, adapt, tinker, develop and deploy code (applications) without the restrictions traditionally associated with proprietary offerings. All the best virtues of open source software are really derivatives of this kind of ‘free’ (as in liberty) rather than simply ‘free’ as in price … although the savings are certainly a nice draw as well.

On the academic front, open source software can serve as a real boon to the student looking to sharpen his or her skills or excel in a class. Those looking to build a career in IT will find open source software the perfect virtual laboratory to build skills or explore new ideas without the constraints and prohibitions that come with proprietary programs. Break it down, build it up, throw in something new. Hit a brick wall?... No problem. Try a different approach. It's yours to play with.

This freedom can come in as handy for those working on a supervised project as it will for those trying to seize a share of a new market. Looking for a little enlightenment outside of lectures? Open source software is there as well. It empowers independent learning by letting you tinker with the code on your own schedule and your own system -- no professor necessary.


Looking for an application that does what you actually need it to do? Gone are the days of having to hope that a large corporate player will develop and offer for sale a program that you want, only to discover that it is at a price you can't afford. And when you find it doesn't quite live up to the hype? No longer will people have to wait for expensive and imprecise updates or patches to fix their applications. When source code is shared and distributed freely under an open source license, anyone is allowed to use, modify and reproduce that code on a non-discriminatory basis.

With open source software you get to decide what to create and when to release it. Then your friends and peers can fine tune and improve upon it with the fruits of all this labor being offered back out to the general community... at no cost. Where will the next YouTube come from, or FaceBook or Wikipedia? It may just come from you. And now you don't need tons of capital and corporate infrastructure to launch that next great innovation. All you need is inspiration.

Transparency With Privacy

The emergence of open source promises a world marked by several digital freedoms -- the freedom to participate, collaborate, create, use and deploy. Open source communities can enable students to connect with each other and collaborate across the boundaries of geography and culture in a way that benefits all of society. Part of this emerging reality is a shift from the old model of security with secrecy, where lack of access to a program's source code often (ironically) spawned vulnerabilities and restricted choice, toward a new paradigm of transparency coupled with privacy, where communities can flourish while assuring quality and protection to their members.

It is a world of expanded opportunity, increased flexibility, and continual innovation. Keep your money - Release your ideas - Build a business - Launch a community - Start a movement! The barriers to entry (and exit) are down, new horizons are emerging, and the climate for innovation is more welcoming than it has ever been. Jump in!

Thursday Sep 18, 2008

Software Freedom Day Podcast

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of discussing Free software and Software Freedom Day with co-ordinator Pia Waugh, John Sullivan of the FSF and Jono Bacon of Canonical. The podcast has some rather nasty background noises caused by the telephone system, but some interesting conversation. Software Freedom Day is this Saturday, do join in - there are local events all over the world, including many sponsored by Sun!

[ MP3 | Ogg ]

Wednesday Sep 10, 2008

Project Kenai and Supporting OSI

As part of a series of open source activities around Software Freedom Day, Sun quietly rolled out a cool new open source facility this week. Before I tell you about it, I should mention I've been part of the revived discussion considering open source license proliferation and the Open Source Initiative (OSI). As you may recall, I am keen to fix the problem of the proliferation of open source licenses, even to the extent to asking OSI to regard two Sun-created licenses (SISSL and SPL) as no longer for active use.

License Choice

One of the approaches advocated in that discussion is to run open source hosting facilities that only allow a subset of licenses, making most licenses unavailable to new projects. While the ideology behind the selection may appear sound, I think that's the wrong direction to take. If OSI is to have any relevance in the future, we all need to respect its decisions and strengthen its authority. If we think they were or are now wrong decisions, we need to help OSI put its house in order and not usurp its authority and put ourselves unilaterally in the place of arbiters of what is a "true" open source license.

Project Kenai License Selection

That's why I'm pleased to say that the new community hosting system Sun opened for beta this week, Project Kenai, uses the OSI License (Anti-)Proliferation Committee's report as the basis for license selection for new communities. Expanded list of Kenai licenses

When you create a new hosted project, Kenai offers first of all the "recommended" licenses ("Licenses that are popular and widely used or with strong communities"). If you're looking for a specific license, you can "grow" the list to show the rest of the OSI-approved licenses. Finally the deprecated/retired licenses are available if you specifically request to use them (since OSI doesn't un-approve licenses). Hopefully this approach will cause new projects which don't have a specific license in mind to choose from the small pool of common licenses, while at the same time allowing existing communities to use the licenses they already prefer.

Community Hosting

Project Kenai is pretty interesting in all sorts of other ways, of course, not least that it's a Ruby on Rails application. Tim has some of the technical details on his blog. We created it because we realised that, with Sun involved in upwards of 750 different open source projects, acting as host for some reasonable number of them, we needed to have some hosting infrastructure of our own. It also gave us an opportunity to build a large-scale site using modern techniques, as well as to offer the facility as a service to the open source community at large.

It's more than just a "forge" offering Subversion and Mercurial - it includes infrastructure for social networking within and between communities as well, and the development team is continuing to enhance these. They're not quite ready to open the doors to new projects yet, but if you have a project you would like to host there, please contact me for an invitation to the beta programme and get in on the ground floor. And of course you are invited to explore the system and to join in with existing projects if you want - no invitation is needed to do either of those things. Take a look especially at the new xVM Server project, launched yesterday.

Monday Sep 08, 2008

On the funding of open source

What Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stronger

Over the past week the question of who pays for open source and whether it faces a tragedy of the commons in the future has kept coming up. There seems an instinctive acceptance that open source is a charitable venture that should seek collective donations like any other non-profit. I don't think the tragedy of the commons applies to a true open source community, and I think the assumption it's all done "for free" is a mistake.

Three Threads

Three threads came together for me this evening from diverse sources:

  1. Chris Anderson, the author of The Long Tail, is now blogging his way to his new book about the impact of "free". I've found the posting stimulating and insightful and I'm finding the blog as valuable as his earlier "long tail" series. His posting last week about the three basic economic models involving getting something without paying was very clear, laying out all the approaches I could think of for leveraging "gratis". But at the end he made me wonder if he's completely clear about the "Free" in open source meaning "liberty" and not "price". The trigger was when he suggested the third model - "freemium" - was the model behind
    open source's "support included" commercial versions of Linux.
    While the models he describes can certainly apply to products delivered to consumers, I am not so sure they apply to the commons at the heart of peer production of which Yochai Benkler wrote.
  2. As it happens, I am currently reading Clay Shirky's (excellent) book Here Comes Everybody, which explores commons-based peer production in terms far more acessible than Benkler. I have reached the chapter called "Personal Motivation Meets Collaborative Production", which largely uses Wikipedia as an example1. Clay's book so far has been an ode to the power-law curve, and this chapter pointed out how the attribute of collaborative communities that, characteristically for power-law contexts, 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people (with one or two doing 80% of the work done by that 20%)2. Looking at Anderson's third diagram it's clear he's talking about the same sort of phenomenon.
  3. The third thread came from several conversations in different contexts about cash donations to open source communities. I have been being a a nuisance on some open source boards I participate in over accepting large donations from non-participants in return for giving them recognition. I've been asserting that it's not right to allow outsiders to gain the benefit of being seen as part of a community just because they made a large financial contribution. I still stand by that assertion, despite getting considerable push-back from several people whose opinions I respect.

Paying Your Own Way

Monarchs on Eucalyptus

These three threads all come together in the observation that open source is what happens when several different people choose to work together on the same code base rather than working separately. Each of them is there for their own reasons; each covers their own costs and contributes the code they choose to. There is no pooling of funds to pay for work to be done because everyone is solely responsible for their own costs.

As a consequence, there is no fiscal power that any contributor holds over others, so no-one has the right to tell the others what to do. An open source community is an example of a group of people choosing to synchronise their mutual interests, each at their own expense, for the benefit of all involved including themselves3. While there may be a non-profit organisation for administrative reasons, an open source community is not a non-profit or a for-profit.

Now, if the motivation of one or two of the participants is to then offer the software as part of a "freemium" plan, that doesn't mean the whole project is there to serve their activity. That's just the motivation of one or two participants at work. They are not giving away their work without payment; they are giving away the contents of the commons at the same price at which they acquired it.

As long as their activity doesn't "take over" and disrupt the interests of others, no-one minds too much. Your motivations for participating are rarely my business. There's a "long tail" out there too, made of a large number of others who have their own motivations to be there and who are covering their own costs as a part of executing on those motivations. And the commons isn't spoiled in any way by being more widely used.

If that's the case, allowing a donor to give only money to be able to use the community's "brand" flies in the face of the basic dynamic of the community. Whuffie is not for sale. I understand that some communities have created an adjunct non-profit, and that body can use the money for socially useful things like hosting or employing a facilitator. But the money that's needed ought to be coming from the community members themselves, not from an outsider trying to wrap themselves in the community's "flag". The community is only about contributing as far as that is about collaborating.

Mesh of Motives

Any open source project that actually has a co-developer community is thus not an example of Anderson's third model because profit doesn't come into it. Some of the contributors might be, but the community as a whole is actually a mesh of different participants, all with their own motivational models and all paying their own way to achieve them outside the context of the community. If those motivational models involve business, I am sure they will be about payment at the point of value. But the community itself is about the liberty to align interests, not about the presence or absence of profit. Once again "free" deceives english speakers...

  1. All the way through the chapter I've been wondering the effect of the strong Wikipedia culture. Shirky somewhat idealises contribution and the fact that there's an inner circle of "Wikipedians" taking actions like deleting non-notable entries rather than developing them isn't reflected.
  2. When I read about this at the end of last year it was a small revelation: whenever you see an 80/20 rule at work, there's an underlying power-law curve involved. I wonder how I had managed to miss this for so long.
  3. Before I get accused again of saying open source doesn't involve altruism, let me be clear that I don't think that. I do, however, reject the definition of altruism as being "an act that benefits other but not me."

Saturday Sep 06, 2008

Third Wave Book?

Last week I had an enjoyable conversation with my old friend Randall Schwartz on Leo Laporte's (which to my surprise was broadcast libe too). It was published on Friday, although I've not had the chance to listen yet as I am connected to the internet via dial-up for the weekend.

The conversation - discussing Sun's open source strategy - is one I have had so many times over the last few months that I wonder if it would be worth writing a book. If you have the time to listen to the podcast, I'd be interested in your thoughts as to whether a book about the third wave of open source and its impact on the software business would be worthwhile. Let me know, by comment or e-mail.


Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.


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